June 9, 2013
Summer is the season of reading lists, so here's one more for the pile. Not all the books on this list are new, but they're books I've read in the past few months and particularly liked.
1. "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell
I'd heard so much about this novel's post-modern literary brilliance that I feared it was all linguistic showmanship and not a lot of plot. I resisted it. I like plot.
And it turns out to have plenty. Six plots, in fact. They romp from the South Pacific in the mid-1800s, to a Belgian chateau circa 1931, to Los Angeles in 1975 and on into the future. Figuring out how the stories are connected is part of the fun, and the fun is a vehicle for contemplating violence, power and the nature of our souls. Best book I've read this year.
2. "Mary Coin" by Marisa Silver
Inspired by "Migrant Mother," Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era photograph of a migrant worker and her children, it's the fictionalized story of the woman in the photo and the photographer who snapped the shot.
With echoes of John Steinbeck, the story travels into the present, marrying a good yarn with big questions, like how much truth can a photo tell? And is history ever true?
3. "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright
Wright can make anything compulsively readable. He did it in "The Looming Tower," his book on events that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he does it again in this dissection of the history, allure and dangers of Scientology. It reads like a thriller — starring Tom Cruise, John Travolta and a cast of thousands! — but it's deeply reported and thoughtfully written.
4. "Just Kids" by Patti Smith
Who would guess a punk rocker would write so well?
In her award-winning memoir, Smith tells of moving to New York as a young dreamer and falling in love with another young dreamer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Despite the fact that she became a rock star and he became a famous photographer, even though she's straight and he turned out to be gay, it's more than a celebrity tell-all or a name-dropping love story. It's an everywoman's tale, about what it is to be young, creative, yearning, impoverished and open to life's confusion.
5. "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway
I read this in college and didn't like it. It's hard to read Hemingway without echoes of bad Hemingway imitations and without feeling the goo of treacly romance that has attached to his period in Paris.
When I decided to read "Sun" again, I tried to read as if I were reading in 1926, when it was published, before it was corrupted by imitation and nostalgia. I saw the genius. He's making a new writing style and telling a novel tale about young American and British ex-pats still wounded, psychologically and physically, by one of the most brutal wars ever.
6. "The Likeness" by Tana French
Detective Cassie Maddox is summoned to a murder scene. The victim looks just like her. She goes undercover as the dead woman. Intrigue and good sentences ensue.
French is an Irish suspense writer often compared to Kate Atkinson and Gillian Flynn. Her most recent book is the popular and highly praised "Broken Harbor."
7. "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple
OK, I haven't read this story of a woman who disappears while her family is planning a trip to Antarctica, but I'm about to because a friend I trust has been raving about it.
Reviewers call it "an enchanting ride," "a literary page-turner," and a "comedic melting pot of family dysfunction, hyperactive parenting, and mental unraveling."
8. "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson writes popular literary mysteries, and her newest novel, hailed as her best, is a mystery at its most existential. As her website puts it:
"What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?
"'Life After Life' follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again."
9. "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson
It's too fat. It's too serious. You don't have time. Like me, you may have had your reasons for not reading this beautiful book about the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans from the American South to the North. Put your excuses aside. You'll be glad you did.
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